Authors: Cathy Hopkins
‘Hey, Jess,’ she said. ‘Have you eaten? This apricot jam is to die for and there’s freshly squeezed grape juice.’
‘Hey,’ I replied and went to sit next to her. ‘Love the outfit.’ She was wearing a white T-shirt and pink tracksuit bottoms with a white stripe down the side.
‘Found me a girlfriend yet?’ asked Alexei. I loved hearing him speak. He had a good English accent but there was a hint of Russian on some words. So exotic-sounding. Some girl was
going to fall head over heels for him. No question about it.
I laughed and shook my head. ‘If you came into school one day, I’d imagine there’d be a line of girls queuing up to be your girlfriend.’ Maybe next term I’ll start
a dating agency, with Alexei as the first to register. Or run a speed-dating event to raise money for a school charity. That would be fun.
At the other end of the bar, JJ busied himself with his laptop as Alisha poured me a glass of juice then handed it to me. I took a sip. It was divine and tasted so different to carton juice. The
Lewises are big on fresh juices and everything is organic and prepared by their housekeeper, Marguerite. She even made them jams with apricots and peaches specially flown in from Italy.
‘I want you to look at a slideshow,’ JJ said. ‘I’ve been working on it all morning.’
‘Why not use the cinema room?’ Alisha suggested. ‘Let her see it all on a larger scale.’
‘Good idea. Won’t be a mo,’ said JJ as he picked up his laptop.
‘Can I come and see?’ asked Alexei.
‘Of course,’ said JJ, and he disappeared out of the door.
‘So, what’s the surprise?’ I asked.
‘If I told you, I’d have to kill you,’ said Alisha. ‘But I think you’ll like it.’
When Alisha and I first met, we didn’t get on: I hated her and thought she was a spoilt princess, while she thought I was a stuck-up pain. As time went on, we got to know each other better
and both of us realised that we were unhappy at Porchester Park for similar reasons. Both of us felt displaced and a little lonely and we’d been taking it out on each other. It was funny. I
thought she had it all – the designer clothes, a fabulous lifestyle – and she thought
had it all because I had freedom and mates whereas she couldn’t go anywhere without
Vanya watching her every move. Once we realised that we were both unhappy, we started talking and found that we got on and we’ve been friends ever since. She’s also a Sagittarian like
me, and too outspoken for her own good, which gets her into trouble sometimes.
‘Ready,’ called JJ.
Alisha, Alexei and I got off our stools and went to join JJ in the cinema room. Most of the apartments have private cinemas and the Lewises’ is no different. Theirs is dark red with
black-out blinds and two enormous, soft brown L-shaped leather sofas so that you can sit with your legs out in front of you. Alexei and I flopped back onto one and Alisha took the other.
‘Let the show begin!’ said Alisha.
At the back of the room, JJ pressed a button on his computer and images of a sunny location started to show on the screen. It looked amazing, wherever it was. A lake with a fairytale white
palace in the middle. Mountains in the distance. A vast honey-coloured palace on the lakeshore with balconies looking over the water. Shots of women in saris in bright jewel colours. Carved
‘Is it India?’ I asked.
‘Udaipur in Rajasthan,’ said Alexei. ‘
. Right,’ said JJ.
‘We’re going for Easter,’ said Alisha.
My heart sank as JJ let a few more photos play across the screen and all my plans for the holidays disappeared into nothing. JJ would be on the other side of the world in the glorious location
up on the screen and I’d be chained to my desk surrounded by school books with nothing but a list of places we could have gone to screwed up in the bin. Bummer.
JJ pressed a button for the slides to finish and came to sit on the sofa with me. ‘Dad’s been shooting some scenes there for his latest movie.’
I didn’t want him to see how disappointed I was so I made myself smile. ‘It looks beautiful, stunning,’ I said. ‘You’ll have a wonderful time.’
‘I think it will be perfect timing to go to India,’ said Alisha, ‘seeing as I’m going through an existential crisis.’
‘I thought that was something that happened when you’re middle-aged. You’re only fifteen,’ I said. ‘What is it exactly, anyway?’
Alisha did her tragic look – one that I have to say she does very well. ‘It can happen at any age. It’s a sense of feeling alone in the world, thinking about the big stuff like
the meaning of life.’
‘In that case, I’m having one too,’ I said. ‘I’m always thinking about stuff like that.’
‘And I, being Russian, ’ave these things in my blood,’ said Alexei.
‘The meaning of life is forty-two,’ said JJ.
I laughed. I knew he was referring to a book I’d read called
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,
where it says the answer to the meaning of life is forty-two. It made me
laugh because I thought, why not? It’s as good an answer as any.
‘You’re mad,’ said Alisha, who clearly didn’t get the reference.
‘You and Alexei are a couple of drama queens,’ JJ told his sister, then grinned. ‘Actually, it’s me who’s having an existential crisis.’
‘You? Why?’ asked Alisha.
‘Well, you guys are having them and I feel left out,’ he said.
Alisha rolled her eyes and turned to me. ‘India is the land of spirituality. Lots of wise people live there. Maybe I could even get enlightened.’
Now it was JJ’s turn to roll his eyes. ‘In under a week? I don’t think so, sis. You can’t go into a shop, pay your money and glug it down, like, I’ll have a cherry
soda and . . . oh, I’ll take a litre of enlightenment too.’
‘Says who? What do
know?’ said Alisha.
‘There are books on it,’ JJ replied. ‘I’ve read about it. Like the big question of where true happiness lies, etc., etc. Philosophers, theologists and teachers have been
musing about it for centuries.’
Alisha scoffed. ‘Happiness to you is a bag of jelly beans. End of.’
‘Jelly beans?’ I asked.
Alisha nodded. ‘JJ’s favourite. Mom won’t let us have too much sugar so JJ has to smuggle them in, then he sits and eats a whole packet at a time.’
JJ looked sheepish. ‘My guilty secret. Thanks for telling everyone, Alisha.’
Like most siblings, JJ and Alisha love to wind each other up. I could see that they were gearing up for one of their arguments so I decided to butt in. ‘So India, hey?’ I said.
‘How long for?’
‘Not long. About six days. The director wants to add another scene into the movie so Dad has to stay longer than he expected. It’ll be an evening shoot, then there’s a wrap
party for the end of filming the next night,’ said JJ.
‘How fabulous,’ I said. It didn’t feel fabulous at all; it felt rotten. Now I really did feel an existential crisis coming on.
‘So, it’s my birthday next week,’ JJ continued, ‘and I was going to do something here but now that Dad has to stay in India, he wants the family to join him and he said I
can celebrate my birthday there.’
I nodded. ‘I hope you have a great time,’ I said. ‘Maybe we can do something when you get back.’ I decided to leave my list in my pocket. My options seemed so dull in
comparison to where he was going.
JJ glanced at Alisha and grinned. He didn’t seem a bit bothered about not spending his birthday with me. In fact, he seemed delighted about the idea.
Maybe we’re not such an item
, I thought.
Maybe I’m much more into him than he is into me.
JJ took my hand. ‘When I get back,’ he said, then grinned again. ‘When
get back.’ He squeezed my hand when he said ‘we’. ‘I’ve spoken to
Mom and Dad and asked if, seeing as it’s my birthday, I can invite you.’
It didn’t sink in for a moment, I was so preoccupied with my disappointment.
‘Did you hear what I just said?’ JJ persisted.
‘Yes, you’re going to India.’
‘He’s asking if you’ll come too,’ Alisha said. ‘Wake up and smell the curry! And no way am I going to be a gooseberry so I asked Mom and Dad if Pia could come as
well and they said yes.’
This time, it did sink in. I glanced back up at the wall where a photograph of a lake at sunset still filled the screen.
Me? Pia? India?
JJ nodded. ‘Yeah. What do you say? Just for five or six days? Mom’ll take care of all the arrangements.’
I was stunned. I’d only ever been out of England a few times and that was to Europe when Mum was still alive. But India? Travelling with the Lewises? Time alone with JJ? It could be
‘It’s a no-brainer. Of course I’d
to come.’ I stared at the image on the screen and let myself imagine being there. To my left, I noticed Alexei hadn’t
said much and was looking thoughtful. ‘You OK, Alexei?’
He nodded, and then shook his head. ‘Just thinking I vish I could be there vith you.’
‘Come too,’ said JJ. ‘I’m sure Mom and Dad won’t mind.’
Alexei shook his head. ‘I have to go to Paris vith my parents. It is my aunt’s birthday so all family vill be there.’
‘Paris is lovely,’ said Alisha. ‘But yeah, shame you can’t come with us. That would’ve been a blast.’
‘It vould. Like, vot am I going to do on my own over in France after birthday?’ asked Alexei.
‘You’ll be fine,’ said Alisha, ‘and we’ll all be back here before you know it.’
‘I guess,’ Alexei replied, but he looked as disappointed as I’d felt only moments before.
‘Can I see the slideshow again?’ I asked.
‘Of course,’ said JJ.
‘It’ll be great to have you along,’ said Alisha, as beautiful image after beautiful image appeared on the wall. ‘We’ll have such a top time.’ She stuck her
tongue out at her brother. ‘We can get enlightened together. All my mates are getting into it back in LA. Used to be everyone had a psychiatrist but now the in-thing is to have a
‘I thought they all had plastic surgeons,’ said JJ and twisted his nose.
‘Not me,’ said Alisha. ‘My nose is perfect and all my own.’
‘Hey, I have to tell Pia,’ I said. ‘That is if she’s awake!’
‘Yeah, get her up here,’ said Alisha. ‘JJ insisted on telling you first but let’s break the news to her, too.’
I quickly sent Pia a text telling her to come up urgently and she sent one back saying that she was on her way.
‘Must have finally woken up,’ I said as I clicked my phone off.
As we waited for her to arrive, JJ told me more about the trip and talked me through the pictures of temples, hotels and palaces. I felt dizzy with excitement. It looked so colourful and exotic
and sounded so wonderful . . . but then I remembered. Dad. GCSEs. Would he let me go?
A sinking feeling in my gut said,
. N for no. N for never. N for
Pia and I sat in the kitchen at her house.
‘How can life be so absolutely brilliant one moment and so totally rubbish the next? All in the space of twenty-four hours?’ I asked. ‘I feel like I’ve been on a
rollercoaster inside my head.’
‘Way less than twenty-four hours,’ said Pia. She checked her watch. ‘It’s only one o’clock. So only two hours since I heard about India.’ She slumped down and
put her forehead on the table. ‘Arghhhh.’
‘It’s like telling us we’ve won the lottery then saying, actually, it was a mistake. We haven’t.’
After Pia had heard about her invite, we’d raced down from the Lewises, Pia to tell her mum, and me to tell my dad.
Easter? No way,’ Dad said, exactly as my gut had predicted.
‘You do make me laugh,’ Pia’s mum told her.
We’d tried our full repertoire of persuasion.
.) Pia told me she even went down on her knees. Her mum said that while she was down there, she might as well clean under the kitchen table. Parents think
Boo hoo, sob, warghhh
.) Dad looked like he wanted to run a mile.
Bribery. (‘I’ll wash the dishes for the rest of the year.’) We were both told we should be doing that anyway in return for having a roof over our heads, getting fed, yadah
yadah . . .
Clever arguing. (The school of life. It will be such a great experience . . .) ‘And so will studying,’ said both our parents. ‘You have to think of your future.’
And finally, war. (‘It’s so unfair! I hate you and will never speak to you again!’) ‘Good,’ said Dad. ‘Peace at last.’
‘You said that last week,’ said Pia’s mum. ‘So no change there, then.’
Dad said I’d thank him later when I got good GCSE results. As
‘I guess I have to tell JJ and Alisha sometime,’ I said.
Pia lifted her head off the table and nodded. ‘Better tell them now.’ She got up, fetched the phone and handed it to me. I punched in their number. Mrs Lewis answered and told me
that JJ and Alisha had gone out shopping in Sloane Street.
‘Can I pass on a message?’ she asked.
‘No, er, yes, er . . . I’m so sorry, Mrs Lewis, but my dad says I can’t come to India with you, and Pia’s mum won’t let her go either.’